“But where’s the nearest public bathroom?”
It’s an honest and genuine question for women backpackers in a world where the idea that women must be genteel and even a little cloistered from the vagaries of budget travel is pretty pervasive. And stupid. Look, as long as you’re a part of this species, you’re going to need to eat and drink and get rid of the by-products of those processes. Deal with it.
The sheer number of women I’ve met who opt out of backpacking as a way of seeing the world because they cannot fathom peeing anywhere that isn’t a porcelain throne is heartbreaking. It closes off so much to you! The sad reality is that, globally, running water and indoor plumbing are a luxury, and for the vast majority of people in the world, the idea of a flushing toilet is strange.
There’s the sentiment behind backpacking that we make ourselves and our needs so small that we are able to make room for the grandest adventures. So to get to some of the more interesting parts of the world—to watch the sunrise from the top of Mount Kenya or visit the secret beaches of northern Madagascar—you and your nervous bladder will just have to make it work.
It’s one thing to get used to surviving on bread, yogurt, and water—it’s another thing altogether to coerce a shy bladder to let loose over a garbage heap.
I absolutely get it. It’s one of the hardest adjustments to make to life on the road. It’s one thing to get used to surviving on bread, yogurt, and water—it’s another thing altogether to coerce a shy bladder to let loose over a garbage heap. Those of us who are socialized around modern conveniences aren’t just going to give them up, not least of all people like those I grew up with who are mostly one or two generations out from having to use the bush or a shoddily constructed pit latrine. Who would choose to go back to that when Japan is inventing toilets that need a remote control?
I remember exactly where I was when the switch flipped for me. I was in Lomé, the Togolese capital city and my first major trip in Africa outside my home country, Kenya. The highlight of city life in Lomé is a street called Brochettes sur la Capitale, with rows and rows of roast beef, chicken, and rabbit skewers served by frantic men in multicolored two-piece suits, backed by a thumping soundtrack of West African dance music. The skewers were delicious and the drink flowed freely, and because the drink flowed freely, the inevitable happened. I needed to go.
You must understand that Togo is one of the poorest countries in the world. Running water is scarce. So I’m not sure what I was expecting but I can assure you it’s not what I got. Who would expect a full porcelain toilet mounted over a pit latrine, with no piping and no running water? Not I, but that’s what I got. A great metaphor, perhaps, for Togo itself—odd bits of contemporary amenities grafted onto deep traditionalism and development choked by rotten politics. Great metaphors make terrible toilets. I walked in, encountered the stench, and then turned around and walked right back out. And then I remembered that I really, really had to go. What could I do?
This was the moment I discovered that switch somewhere in our minds that allows us all to shut off unpleasantness when there is business to be handled. It’s entirely possible to choose not to notice something vile or not to make a fuss when you genuinely have no choices. If you can just flip this switch for a couple of minutes, the list of places that “you just can’t go” shrinks exponentially. For me, the world of long-distance bus travel opened up, and I’ve never looked back.
There is no feminist solution yet to the fact that cis men can pee just about anywhere because the process isn’t as revealing for them as it is for us.
Finding this switch means that on a 36-hour bus ride from Malawi into Tanzania, when the bus breaks down in a two-horse town with no bar or hotel, you don’t panic. It means that when the waitress in the small rest stop in the smallest town outside a smaller town outside a small town in Madagascar points to the garbage heap when you ask for a toilet, you roll with it. It means that when your guide points to a bush on the side of the trail in the Aberdares and says, “Look out for elephants,” you laugh instead of panic.
Budget travel is much kinder to cis men than to anyone else. There is no feminist solution yet to the fact that cis men can pee just about anywhere because the process isn’t as revealing for them as it is for us. They annoyingly just don’t need or value privacy the way we do. Standing in the middle of the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia—endless miles of salt plains with nary a tree in sight—desperately needing to go, you start to wonder if this is a new feminist frontier. Out in the desert in Sudan, when your driver says, “Go behind the car; I promise I won’t look,” you may find yourself genuinely working through the mechanics of peeing in a bottle. Then you go, and the crisis is averted, and you go back to the more important business of marveling at that glorious desert sunset.
So yes, dear reader, pee in that Togolese toilet, on that garbage heap in Madagascar, and mark your territory in the deserts of Ethiopia and Sudan. Backpacking is often awkward and uncomfortable, but oh, the places you will pee!